Thursday, March 27, 2014

There was nothing little about it.

To listen, click here.

Lent 3A.  23 March 2014.[1]


John 4.4-42


            Exactly two weeks ago, Mary Ellen Ruddy asked me where I would travel if I could.  I said that I’d like to visit the Holy Land—the place, but not the politics.  I would imagine that being in the Holy Land would be very moving.  I remember Ray Brownfield talking about that from his own experience.  From what I have heard it can be life-changing to see the places we read about in the Bible. 


            If I ever get there, I would want to see what any other Christian would want to see.  But there are one or two places that interest me that perhaps might not interest everyone.  I would want to visit the old city of Shechem.


            If you remember Joseph in the Old Testament—the one who dreamed the dreams and was the Pharaoh’s right hand man—the favored son of Jacob.  Well, he is buried near Shechem.  Shechem was a city-state—a large, impressive city located strategically in the pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal—meaning that you cannot pass through those mountains without passing through Shechem.  It had a major military fortress, and it had a temple—“one of the largest pre-Roman temples ever discovered in Palestine.”[2]


            After Moses died, his assistant Joshua, led the people across the Jordan.  If you read the story, Joshua ordered the Levitical priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan.  The Ark was the travelling container for the stone tablets Moses had inscribed with the Torah.  It was said to contain the very presence and glory of God himself. 


            When the priests set foot in the Jordan, the waters “piled up” so that the Hebrew people walked through the Jordan, just like they had walked through the Red Sea.  People don’t remember that story, but it’s in the Bible.  The priests carried the Ark into the river, and the river stopped.  And while the Ark was in the river bed—at “Parade Rest” (to use the military term) the people walked from one side of the river to the land of Canaan. (Joshua 3)  There was also a temple in the city of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant came to rest.


            In time, the Philistines would come and make war with the Israelites.  After one skirmish, they captured the Ark, and for seven months the Philistines had so many health problems that they returned it to the Israelites.  (1 Sam 5)  From there the Ark was given to Eleazar the son of Abinadab, and he kept watch over the Ark for twenty years at Kiriath-jearim, which is about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem.


            When King David was anointed, it is said that he was very shrewd.  He took the Ark from Kiriath-jearim, and brought it to Jerusalem with great fanfare.  David literally danced naked before the people, as a sign of his total abandon and joy at the presence of the Ark in Jerusalem. 


            Jerusalem, under King David, was to become the seat of all political and religious power.  And is to this day.  The Ark rested in Jerusalem in a tent, until Solomon built the Temple.  And that temple is “The Temple”—the one that would be destroyed during the Babylonian exile, and then rebuilt by King Herod. 


            But what about Shechem?  What about Shiloh and Mt. Gerizim?  What about those ancient cities where the Hebrew people had worshiped and had been the center of political and religious power?


            Well, there are people who continued to worship there according to that tradition.  They considered themselves the true descendents of Moses and the Exodus story—the people who, before the Babylonian exile, before David, before the Judges, before any of it, were the true Israelites. 


            They didn’t call themselves Jews, because they were not of the House of Judah.  There were of the tribes of Joseph, Levi, Ephraim, and Manasseh, and they called themselves the Keepers of the Law—or the Keepers of the Torah—which in Hebrew is “Shamerim.”  And the word Shamerim became Samaritan.


            Samaritans and Jews are different groups.  When the political and religious power moved to Jerusalem, it stayed there.  But the Samaritans remained in their land, and remained true to their Torah, despite the fact that the Jews were many more in number and would not recognize them or their reading of history. 


            To walk around Shechem and Shiloh, and the ancient cities of Canaan would be to walk around Samaria, and see the ruins of the temple in Shechem and Mt. Gerizim, and to see where it all began—to mourn the division between our Israelite ancestors. 


             Jesus himself would walk around those ancient cities.  The city of Shechem is also known as Sychar, and on the eastern side of it there is a well that belonged to Jacob that had been given to his ancestor Joseph.  So you see, this well, and the whole city, was the place that was once “the place.” 


            Jesus and his disciples had been on the road, and Jesus decides to go over to the well, while the disciples go on into Shechem to find food.  Jesus is sitting by the well, and a woman of Samaritan descent comes to draw water.


            This is a clash of cultures and backgrounds.  Jesus is of the House and lineage of David, who is of the House of Judah.  Jesus is a Jew.  The woman is probably—just by nature of the ancient map of tribes—she is probably of the House of Manasseh.  They would have known each other’s background without any conversation.  In fact, they would have had to, because Jews and Samaritans did not talk with each other.  And even if they had, men and women did not talk with each other—certainly not while they are alone.


            This is a scandalous sort of meeting.  A Jew and Samaritan.  A man and woman, alone.  It took some guts for the woman to approach the well.


            Jesus asks for a drink.  But that’s not all he is asking.  He is asking her to draw water with her own dipping spoon, and then give Jesus the water in that spoon.  That action not only breaks the taboos of Jewish/Samaritan relations, it implies a level of intimacy that would be considered tantamount to sharing a bed. 


            The conversation that follows is also scandalous.  Jesus tells her to bring her husband.  She says she has no husband.  Jesus says, That’s right you’ve had five husbands.  I do not believe he is being critical of her.  In that culture, women were passed around.  Men could dismiss a wife, and leave her completely defenseless.  The woman’s five husbands is not a condemnation of sexual impropriety—this woman has had to take those men just to eat and have a place to live. 


            I think what Jesus is saying is “You’ve had five husbands—you’ve had a hard life.  And the man you are with right now—number six?—he might not keep you either.  Woman, you have had it rough.”


            The woman said, “Sir, we are from different backgrounds.  Samaritans worship on Mt. Gerizim, because that’s where Joshua brought us—that’s “the place” for us.  But you Jews—ever since David—you Jews say this is no longer “the place.”  Jerusalem is “the place” God should be worshiped.”     And Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me…the hour is coming when it’s not going to matter whether it’s here or there.  The hour is coming when this conversation, this place, this moment, this very second will be considered worship.  It’ll no longer be `us and them.’  It’ll all be `us’ and God.”


            The woman said, “Sir, I know that the Messiah is coming and he will tell us these things.”  And Jesus said, “You’re looking at him.”  The woman ran back into the ancient city of Shechem, and she told her friends, “You’re not going to believe this.  I just met a Jewish man at the well, who not only speaks with me, but knows my life and background, and still wants to talk with me.  I think he might be the Messiah.”


            And the Samaritans who knew the woman came out to meet Jesus, and they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed with them for two days, and after that two days, they told the woman, “It is not because of what you said that we believe.  We have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is not just the Messiah—this is the Savior of the world.”


            Just a little compassion for a woman who had had a hard life.  Just a little drink of water.  Just a little conversation.  Now that you know the story, you know that was nothing “little” about it.         


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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] Adapted from my sermon on 27 March 2011.

[2] Anderson, pg. 143

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Born from above

Lent 2A.  16 March 2014.


John 3.1-21



            We are in John’s Gospel today, and for the rest of the Sundays of Lent.  John’s Gospel is unlike what we call the synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke.  Synoptic means that those three tell the story of Jesus in much the same way.


            John’s Gospel has different emphases, and a completely different way of presenting Jesus.  John’s Jesus is other-worldly—emphasizing his divinity over his humanity.  Jesus is often depicted as inscrutably wise and so far beyond human beings.  Also, unlike, the synoptic Gospels, John viewed the cross as the ultimate exaltation of Jesus.  His death is the culmination of his ministry to the world, and his obedience to the Father, and so—as we’ve noted in the Lent Study last week—Jesus embraces his path to the cross and does not shrink from it as he does in Mark’s gospel.


            Today we meet up with Nicodemus.  Next week we will read the account of the Samaritan woman who comes to Jacob’s well.  Both stories are close to each other in John’s Gospel and both stories employ the themes of water and the Spirit.



            Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees, a member of the Sanhedrin, which is the ruling council.  So this isn’t just anyone who shows up to see Jesus.  The Sanhedrin isn’t like being a member of the vestry.  You had to be of a good family background; you had to know the Torah very, very well; and be considered completely and totally loyal to the ways of the Hebrew people.  I remember hearing someone described as being a hard-shell Southern Baptist.  Well, Nicodemus is hard-shell Jewish.


            That he shows up at all to see Jesus privately is astounding, but he does it at night.  Night is of course a very symbolic element in the story.  Darkness can be spiritual or intellectual as well as physical.  The night visit could be construed as cowardice, as well, but let me ask you to think well of Nicodemus.


            He is respectful.  He calls Jesus, rabbi, a mark of respect—teacher.  He says, “We know you have come from God, for no one could perform these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”


            I will pause here to remind you of two things.  First, remember that the key to understanding all of John’s Gospel is contained in the very first chapter, where John writes that Jesus came to his own people, and his own people did not receive him, but those who received [Jesus] and believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.  John’s Gospel is about those who rejected him, and those who accepted him. 



            The second thing I want to remind you is that John uses the word signs instead of miracles.  The idea is that a miracle is like a magic trick—fun, but meaningless.  A sign, however, means that the improbably wonderful thing Jesus does is laden with meaning—it points to who Jesus is and what God is doing through him. 


            The irony, of course, is that people loved the signs, but didn’t track them back to a deeper awareness of God’s presence among them.  Therefore John’s Jesus looks down on the people who just wanted to see miracles.  That impatience in Jesus is clearly visible in this interaction with Nicodemus.  He says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born anew.”  Nicodemus says, “We see the signs.”  Jesus is responding, “No, you don’t see anything.”


            And the reason Nicodemus can’t see is because he has yet to be born anew.  And now John really plays with the Greek language, because the word he uses, which was translated in the NIV and in the King James as “again” is a word that carries three different but similar meanings.  The word άνωθεν can mean “again,” or “anew” or “from above.”  We don’t know which meaning Jesus originally intended because Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and in Aramaic there is no one word that means all of those.  It’s likely that John was deliberately using άνωθεν because John loved the many meanings—and probably reveled in the thought that devout Christians like you and me would be teased by his word choice into active thought.


            And in some sense the ambiguity or the uncertainty is the point of this exchange.  Nicodemus has come to visit a man he refers to as “rabbi,” and it’s very  much in the tradition of the rabbis to teach with challenge and ambiguity.  Nicodemus says, “We see.”  Likely he is speaking on behalf of his community of devout Pharisees, “We know that you are from God because we see the signs.”  Like a rabbi, Jesus challenges him, “You don’t see, because you can’t see through your tired, worn out vision.  You have to be born anew to have eyes to really see who I am.”


            Nicodemus comes back at him, in the way that pulpil responds to a rabbi’s challenge, “How can someone be born again.”  Nicodemus chooses one of the three meanings, you see?  It would have been astounding if in this interaction he had chosen the other meanings, but then he would have caught sight of who Jesus is!


            “How can someone be born when they are old?  Can they enter the second time into the mother’s womb?”  And Jesus says, “No, it’s not about the womb of a woman; this is a spiritual birth.”  Nicodemus responds, “How can that be?”


            Jesus says, “You are a teacher of Israel—you are one of the spiritual fathers of the Hebrew people—and you don’t understand this?!  Do you remember the story of Moses?  The people were getting bitten by firey snakes and dying, and Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze, and lifted it up on a pole, and the people who looked at it didn’t die.”


            “How did it work?  Well, the people believed it was a symbol of healing, and God provided healing through that.  But unlike the temporary healing they received, when I am lifted up from the earth, those who believe in me, will have eternal life.  I wasn’t sent here because God is condemning the world, but because God loves the world.” 


            “Do you see that now, Nicodemus?  Do you see the signs of what God is accomplishing through the Word made flesh—when the Son of the Living God comes and actually does what God has instructed us all to do?”  (Pause.)


            Do you feel the silence in the air between Jesus and Nicodemus?  Maybe that’s a silence between you and Jesus, too. 


            Part of the silence between us and the Lord is this sense of believing and not knowing how or why.  Jesus himself speaks of it.  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  That’s what it’s like with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”


            We accept the mystery.  We find life in the mystery.  We don’t know exactly how Jesus saves us, or what the full impact of salvation is in the here and now, or in the “by and by.”  We speak of it in very imperfect language. 


            We say “salvation,” but that word is also laden with meanings, just like άνωθεν.  Salvation also means being given a place to breathe.  The Greek word σωζω, from which we get the word salvation, is used 104 times in the New Testament. 


            Let me give you some of the meanings for σωζω:

·       to save a suffering one from dying, as in saving someone from suffering from disease

·       to preserve one who is in danger of destruction, to save or rescue

·       to make well, heal, restore to health


            Being born anew, or from above, or again has been used in American Christianity to speak of a special kind of conversion—and I really do respect that, but I wouldn’t want to see such a profound concept in John’s Gospel become domesticated from its proper place in the wild. 


            If salvation and being born again are construed in that way, then it places the meanings of those words in the same category as having graduated from high school.  As in, you got saved, and you were born again, and therefore the thinking can become that you get it, you got it, you’re fine.


            But it is precisely this way of thinking that got Nicodemus in trouble.  He makes the mistake of approaching Jesus believing that he has all the theological answers.  He is saved in his context.  He’s a member of the inner brotherhood—the Sanhedrin.  He knows the passwords and how things work in the Torah.  And Jesus confronts him with the Living God.  The living Christ.  A living faith, which is real σωζω.  Wholeness, healing, salvation.  A place to breathe and be at peace with the Living God.


            This is the kind of faith we speak of when we speak of being a devout Christian—that despite our rich and thoughtful theology, the source of true wholeness and salvation is found in approaching and being changed by the Lord.  By renewing that connection daily, and walking as close to him as we possibly can. 


            That’s not to sound anti-intellectual on one end of the spectrum, or spookily spiritual on the other, but to come as a pilgrim, a seeker, a person of desire for being born anew.


            So as you head back to your lives after this liturgy, let me just ask you to offer a little prayer in the oratory of your soul.  I love that language.  I first heard it from a friend of mine who is a Benedictine monk in England.  The oratory is a small chapel in a monastery. 


            Maybe you could imagine going into your own private oratory.  Imagine what it would look like.  You can decorate it however you want.  I preach a lot so, mine has no pulpit!  But it has a beautiful Altar with a reredos of gold that depicts angels ascending and descending, and there are more candles than you can possibly imagine. 


            It smells like incense, and the spices that anointed Jesus’ body for burial.  Altar is the stone on which Joseph of Arimathea laid him, and on that stone is the cloth that covered him, now in the Resurrection it is folded up, and never to be used again.  And engraved into that stone Altar are the words from the last chapter of the Book of Revelations, “Surely I am coming soon.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.”


            That’s my oratory.  That’s where I offer my prayers.  There are no answers in my oratory.  No theological books.  And though Jesus is not artistically represented anywhere, his presence fills that space.


            Go into your oratory.  Look at how beautiful it is.  You may never have noticed its beauty, or appreciated it for what it is, but it’s there. Yours might be simpler than mine, that’s fine.  But the important thing is that it be a place where you can approach the Living God.  That it be a place where you can be born άνωθεν.






Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Monday, March 3, 2014

Last Sunday after the Epiphany. 2 March 2014.

Last Sunday after the Epiphany A.  2 March 2014.[1]


This is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the great forty days of Lent.  If you look at the lectionary, you will see that each year on this Sunday we read the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. 


It is a very important moment in the life of Jesus, and of course, in the lives of Peter, James, and John.  Jesus takes them with him up to the Mount of Olives and while they were there Jesus face is transfigured.  His clothes become a dazzling white, and appearing before him are Moses and Elijah.  Moses and Elijah are significant, of course, because they represent the history of God's relationship with humanity.  But even more importantly they symbolize the unity of purpose they share with God—the purpose of bringing to fulfillment the salvation of the world.


It's an interesting story.  I mean, here you've got Jesus, whom the Gospel writers and St. Paul have gone out of their way to show us was in every way human as we are, yet without sin.  And then here he is suddenly appearing more like God than a human being—which is fine, if he's going to stay that way.  It looks like a kind of promotion.  Jesus has been baptized—he has shared that experience with his friends—and now he goes up to the mountain, like Moses himself, and gets transfigured.  He's the new and improved Moses.  

Do you remember the story of Moses' face being transfigured?  It was so bright that Moses had to wear a veil, because people couldn't look at him straight on.  Do you remember that story?  That's what we are meant to remember. 


So here it is again, and it's Jesus.  Jesus’ face is transfigured.  Well, okay.  Fine.  But then it goes back to normal.  And this is what I find kind of disturbing.  Why did it happen that way?  Is this some sort of secret identity?


When I was a little boy, I liked Superman and Batman.  When my friends would come over, my mother would take old dishtowels and fasten them around our necks with clothespins so that we could run around the backyard with capes. 


Secret identities.  They are fascinating to little boys; they are fascinating to grown-ups, too.  Clark Kent works for the newspaper.  He looks like your average guy (if your average guy looks like a male model) but then something happens and he's gone.  He runs down the alley into a phone booth, takes off his glasses, pulls off his business suit and he's Superman.  It's his secret identity.  He's really someone else.  Someone interesting, and powerful.  Everyone loves Superman, no one notices Clark Kent.  This is a very powerful narrative. 


About six years ago, Karin and I watched a documentary about a group of  300 people living in the DC/Baltimore area who get together in medieval costumes to fight mock battles.  They have been doing this every other Sunday since 1985. 


The name of the documentary is the name of their group: Darkon.  Darkon is the world in which people set up their own countries that go to war for spaces on a make-believe map.  It is a fictional world that is treated by its participants as real.  During the week, these folks are postal employees and hairdressers; men and women; well-educated, but mostly ordinary folks who, every other Sunday, become kings and queens, knights, and damsels.  These folks are getting to live out their secret identities. 


What is most fascinating—and please understand, I mean no disrespect to the folks who do this—is that some of the folks interviewed have an easier time living in Darkon than they do in the real world.  "Ethelwald the Blacksmith" is stronger and more confident than Carl the Postman, you see?  The roles they play are self-defined.  And because everyone else gets to define their roles, no one can criticize them.  Ethelwald is happy because he knows he's a good Ethelwald.  The ordinary guy who plays Ethelwald might not be very good at being a husband and father, a banker, or what have you, because there are too many roles he has to play—too many expectations in the minds of the people around him. 


And you can kind of see Peter, James, and John, getting so wrapped up in the Transfiguration of Jesus that they start wanting to form this kind of parallel reality.  Peter says, "Lord, it's good to be here.  Let's make it permanent.  We'll set up three booths.  One for you, and two for Moses and Elijah." 


And then the cloud comes in, and a voice speaks from the cloud, saying the exact same thing as God said at Jesus' baptism, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased, listen to him."  And when the three disciples look up, they see Jesus back to normal.  No Moses, no Elijah, no miraculous, parallel world.


The whole event left Peter, James and John scratching their heads.  What was the point of all that?  Why even show us the Transfiguration, unless it was permanent?  Was God teasing us? 


            Well, that's a good question.  We understood the secret identity part.  He's had a secret identity from birth.  The angel said to Mary, "You shall bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.  He shall be great, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there shall be no end."  But it doesn't stop there.  He is not just the long awaited Messiah, he's also the Son of God. 


            So when Jesus goes up the mountain as Clark Kent, and becomes Superman, we're not that surprised.  The surprising part is when things go back to normal, because it begs the question, “What does all of this mean?”


            Hard as this might be to accept, I think maybe the return to normal is the main point of this story.  The return to normal took place precisely at the moment Peter wanted the Transfiguration to go on for ever.  In other words, right at the moment when it seemed that ordinary life just didn't cut it anymore—that some mystical alternative to this life could supersede it—God takes us right back to reality. 


            It happens all the time.  You watch a good movie or listen to your favorite piece of music, and you enter that other world—a little break from the incessant realities of life.  There are little escapes we all take now and again.  A glass of wine.  A night at the theatre. 


            But you always come back.  Always come back to the bills, and the fuss, and the room in the house that always needs to be cleaned, the floor that needs to be swept, the dog that needs to go out.


            What is God saying about that?  Why do we get to see Jesus all majestic and wonderful, only to be brought back to plain?  Well, maybe it's because God wanted to show us that salvation is not an escape.  The devout life is not just a ticket to another dimension where we get to live occasionally.  


            I think many Christians walk around with that sort of fantasy.  I know I do from time to time.  I like to think that when Sunday is really good; when I've got a good sermon to preach, and there are good hymns planned, and everything is just right, that a whole new dimension will open up and change everything permanently for the better. 


            The faucets will stop leaking and the dishes will wash themselves.  Free childcare every Friday, four star restaurants that charge McDonald’s prices. 


            But that's not quite what transfiguration or salvation really means.  It's not that God changes us into a different person.  It's that God redeems who we are.   Like refinishing a piece of furniture or rebuilding an old car.  It's not that we become someone else.  It's that God transforms us into the person God intends us to be.  Do you see the difference? We'll still go back to the bills, and the laundry, but who we are is changed.


            I mentioned that we read this lesson every year on the Sunday before Lent, and I think the lectionary writers had a very good reason for that.  We read this story just before heading into a season of repentance and self-examination, because the greater story is: that through these forty days, hopefully, we will experience this kind of transformation. 


            As we take seriously the disciplines of the Godly life, God will be working in us.  Not that we won't still have foibles and flaws, but that bit by bit, God will have a chance to work on those areas of that are most in need of his mercy. 


            I hope I will see all of you at Ash Wednesday services.  I hope you will come and make a new beginning of repentance and faith, and I urge you to be open to the transforming power of God during this holy season.





Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.


Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[1] Adapted from my sermon on 3 March 2008.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Church in Corinth Part Five (Final)

Epiphany 7A.  23 February 2014.


1 Corinthians 3.10,11,16-23


            This is the fifth and final sermon in series of sermons on the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is actually the second letter Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth.  We haven’t read all of this letter, of course, and I certainly haven’t preached on all of the themes Paul addresses.


            Today we read from chapter three, in which Paul speaks about the church as a temple.  The word Paul used for the word we have translated here as temple is the same word used to speak of a temple for a Roman god.  Remember that we’re not in the Holy Land, Corinth is in Greece, and shrines or small temples for Roman gods were common. 


            For a Jewish person reading Paul’s letter, the word temple might be thought to be The Temple, but in their theology the Temple in Jerusalem is a physical representation of the people’s unity.  Even for the Hebrew people, the Temple is really the people; just as for Christians the Church really means the people. 


            Paul is using the metaphorical language of building a structure to speak of his role as their founding pastor.  He writes,

…like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.

            I don’t think the metaphor can be improved upon.  Jesus is the foundation upon which the Church, and everything rests.  I want to take just a moment to say there is a hazard in reading this text as an individual Christian. 

            Christianity is a personal faith, but it has never been meant to be exclusive, or individualistic.  Episcopalians know this well.  We almost unfailing use the plural pronouns of us, we, and our in The Book of Common Prayer.  Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Blessed Assurance” is not in our hymnal.  There may be copyright reasons for that, but there is also the theological reason.  Jesus is mine, but he isn’t only mine.  He is ours. 

            Honestly, even that gives me the willies.  I’d prefer to think that we are his.  Neither you or I, or even we, can ever be thought to own him.  I’d be fine to sing the hymn in an ecumenical gathering.  But in the Episcopal Church, we place a premium on the words we sing and say, because of one of the principles of Anglicanism, “lex orandi, lex credendi”—the words of prayer are the words of belief. 

            What I’m trying to say here is that Paul is not speaking of individual Christians as individual temples of the Holy Spirit—at least not here.  

            Later on, in chapter six he will speak of the body as a temple, but that is in order to correct their sleeping around.  But here—as in previous lessons—he is drawing them together.  Their foundation is a single man, who is God, Jesus Christ, but they are a temple only because they’ve been built together.  Apart from each other, or apart from Christ Jesus, they are merely bricks. 

            When he writes that “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person,” he is not speaking of murder, but of the danger of their divisions.  And within that very sobering verse, Paul introduces a theme that had not yet been introduced in his letter.  And that is the theme of God’s judgment. 

            His point is that those who are promoting division are subject to God’s anger and judgment.  When he writes “God will destroy that person,” I rather hope that he is using hyperbole, as I don’t think of God as striking someone down, but I don’t know.  I do know that it describes the health and unity of the Church as something that God prizes, and that we, therefore, should also value. 

            There are many meanings when we use the word “church.”  The word can mean a parish, a congregation, an entire collective of a denomination.  It can mean the building, or the people. 

            I have long preached that it is an honor to be a Christian—that it is not something anyone should take for granted, or esteem lightly. 


            For those of us who were raised in a more establishment culture, in which being baptized, and therefore being a Christian is like being an American citizen, or a resident of Shenandoah County, it can sound meaningless to say that it’s an honor to be a Christian. 

            One might say it’s a given to be an American, but an honor to serve in the military.  In the same way, one might say it’s a given to be a Christian, but an honor to serve the church.  I can understand that way of thinking, but I disagree with it.

            It’s not a given to be a Christian.  It really never has.  It may be a given that your parents made sure that a cleric poured water over you when you were a baby, and that the grace conferred in the Sacrament truly came upon you and made you a Christian.  But to be a Christian—to live the devout life—is quite another thing. 

            To rise each the morning, seeking God’s grace and favor, seeking God’s help and love.  Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with your God, as the prophet Micah taught. (6:8)  To live the Christian life, accepting its disciplines—that is an honor.

            And if your mentality, if your theology, run along those lines, then it changes how you think of the Church—in all the meanings we have for it.  Taking care of the building, taking care of the people, treating people with dignity and respect, refusing to become hostile or rude, but instead speaking with tenderness and affection to the people who are—as we are—baptized, redeemed, and treasured. 

            I have a very high doctrine of the Church, and so did Paul.  We are the people who stand trembling at the door of the empty tomb.   We are the redeemed of God, and when we embrace that faith it changes everything about us.  Not that we become sanctimonious or self-righteous, but that we live our lives grounded in the holy hope that God is at work in us and through us.  That when we say “we” in the context of God Almighty, it isn’t just “us.”  Do you see what I mean?

            And that’s why I believe the Church deserves the very best we have to give it.  It deserves our genuine financial support, our steadfast servant hood, our earnest prayers, and it must always be more than just what I like or want.  I don’t think of what I give the church as an expression of my agreement, or my happiness with what’s happening in it at the moment. 

            I give my efforts, my talent, and my treasure because Christ died and rose again.  Put simply there is no gift too generous to give the Church, because Christ gave his life for us.  We are the temple in which his Spirit dwells, and through which he gives life to the world. 

            Maybe a way of thinking of it is that the Church is the lungs of the world, breathing in the Holy Spirit, and then breathing it out—giving life to the world.

            If you really believe that, it will change everything about you, and you will come to understand that it really is an honor to be Christian.  I think Paul was trying to say that to the Church in Corinth, and I think he would want to say it to us, too.



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